The Nervous System’s Emerging Stream

In a recent post, Nova Spivack considers “the stream” as the Internet’s next evolutionary stage. I think he makes a lot of compelling points and I’m clearly partial to stream terminology (like it says above, I’m trying to mind the current). It builds on McLuhan’s notion of the nervous system, which is neat. Spivack’s conceptualization of recent Web innovations are something akin to a stream of consciousness, or more specifically streams of thought and conversation. But I end up wondering how fluid this stream really is.

Some of the article meshes in interesting ways with what I was thinking about in my last few posts. I enjoyed reading what he had to say, so I felt like commenting on it. For example,

“And just as the Web once emerged on top of the Internet, now something new is emerging on top of the Web: I call this the Stream. The Stream is what the Web is thinking and doing, right now. It’s our collective stream of consciousness.”

It does feel intuitively right to me that something will emerge on top of the Web but I don’t really think the Web emerged on top of the Internet in an equivalent way. I think of the Web as a conscientiously designed markup language, protocols, and interfaces (browsers) that “resided” on the Internet as their medium. The result of all that was the huge variety we see today. Whereas the stream, also residing on the Internet medium, does not have an analogue in terms of the Web programming I just mentioned. The stream seems to be a lot of different applications or meta-applications that serves various purposes. Some use common protocols or other standards but many might also be considered rivulets within larger streams. So if we want to say there is a stream as something emerging on top of the Web, I think we have to envision it wholly differently than the Web that emerged on top of the Internet. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to think of the stream is an emergent property of the Web?

I’ve been dissecting this stream idea without even saying what it is. Spivack calls out an example in microblogging, of sites like Twitter he says “…they are literally streams of thinking and conversation…” And later he points out that “The Stream is a world of even shorter attention spans, online viral sensations, instant fame, sudden trends, and intense volatility. It is also a world of extremly short-term conversations and thinking.”

That may touch on the same phenomenon I was thinking about when I claimed that people now have short attention spans by necessity. To acquire knowledge people have to pull together many shallow atoms. Spivack’s article recognizes a problem with inexorable onslaught of the stream. So many streams of information, constantly streaming away, how can we cope? The answer seems to be that we’ll need tools to aggregate, filter, and manage our streams for us. [update 14 May: after posting this I read a great post on the Emergent Chaos blog about this very issue… twitter bankruptcy]

But I wonder, we’ve had “constant now” technology for a long time in the form of a telephone. Phone conversations are essentially immediate. There are reasons that we do not stay constantly connected with the now of the phone. What is compelling us to think that we should attempt that with the Web? Just because the Internet is accessible constantly, the Web is updateable immediately, and a computer device can open access to innumerable streams, do I want to be exposed and engaged with that? Increasingly, people seem to be saying yes. I don’t know that that will continue but this is worth exploring more. Nevertheless, because we can transmit information so rapidly I don’t think it means we necessarily will start focusing on the Web for what is happening as opposed to what happened. It may be the case that all of this access, these streams are valuable to us because they keep us rapidly up-to-date with what just happened not what is happening.

“Just as the Web is not any one particular site or service, the Stream is not any one site or service — it’s the collective movement that is taking place across them all.”

I get why it’s so tempting to compare the Stream to streams of consciousness. On the whole, you seem to get a constantly flowing array of stuff with all sorts of lateral connections. Maybe if we place ourselves way above the Internet, and think of it as a mind, these things taken as a whole, would indeed seem fluid like a stream of consciousness. But if we were to focus any one particular person’s Twitter stream for example, it’s much more like an archive than a fluid stream. People select bits of their thoughts and convey them to Twitter, where they appear and remain. Spivack recognizes this because he goes on to discuss the linear nature of most streamlike services. He also states that

“The transition from a slow Web to a fast-moving Stream is happening quickly. And as this happens we are shifting our attention from the past to the present, and our ‘now’ is getting shorter.”

What’s the value in an RSS feed or following a microblog? I think it may be, at least in part, the fact that it is conveying, not the now, but a constant archive of the now. It’s value is that we can look on what has passed, very easily, in a sequential or somehow ordered context and still communicate with it in our own now. Perhaps what we want from the stream is not to be engaged in the now but to be engaged at our own command, with the recently passed. That’s all very unlike a telephone. In this, I don’t see a fluid now like a stream of conscious, but something more like a conveyor of discrete selections.

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